Relationships and Faith: Christian - Non-Christian Intimacy

A couple of months ago I had a dialogue with a friend, via email, on the subject of Christians dating and marrying non-Christians.  It ended up being a really good conversation, and my friend asked a lot of good questions that I think others might wonder about.  So, with this friends permission, I am posting an edited version of that conversation for you. We started off with two sets of questions:

When dealing with relationships when it involves the other person being a non-Christian:

i. What are the consequences of having such a relationship, especially if it eventually involves marriage? Will one's salvation be lost due to this even if the believer still holds firm to his/her faith in Christ? Is there punishments involved? What if the non-believer eventually decide to receive Christ after marriage by witnessing his/her parter's faith and love?

ii. And is there a way to deal with this issue other than saying a direct no to the whole matter?

My response: 

i. It is not an issue of losing your salvation in the sense of God abandoning you.  He never does and never will.  Also, there is no 'punishment' involved if by that you mean 'will God punish me for this'. God isn't waiting up in heaven for us to make mistakes so he can zap us with a lightning bolt; if He was we would all be extremely singed right now.  

Paul, mainly in 1 Corinthians, advices against such relationships for several reasons.  

Marriage is the closest, most intimate, relationship you can have with someone (or, it is supposed to be).  How can that be true when one person has Christ at the center of his or her life and the other does not?  How can you be truly intimate when you have completely different priorities and that which is at the center of your personhood and identity is not at the center of your spouses?  

There are only 3 possible outcomes of such a relationship: 

A. You marry, live on, neither person converting, and deny yourselves a proper marriage by virtue of what you do not and cannot share.  
B. The believer loses their faith, 'converting' away from Jesus.  (obviously bad news)
C. The non-believer converts, placing their faith in Jesus.  (Praise the Lord!)

Of these, if the last occurs, then this is by the grace of God and a great gift. However, in most cases, by the time the couple is married, the believing partner has already been forced to make numerous sacrifices, changes, and movements away from Christ for the sake of the relationship.  Once this pattern is established in the relationship it is difficult to get things moving in the other direction.  Still, God is gracious and can change people even in the worst situations.

ii. Dealing with this issue other than a direct no is not generally a good idea.  If you are talking about yourself, then just say no.  However, if you are talking about friend or family who is not in the position where they have said that direct no, and may not take it kindly coming from you, then you have to be gentle and wise, gracious and compassionate, and very, very prayerful.

One of the things I always want to ask is why, as a Christian, you would want to marry someone
who is not a follower of Christ?  Individuals who do are usually basing their relationships and priorities on things other than Christ, and the answer is not so much 'forbidding the relationship' as it is maturing in our understanding of our own identity in Christ and of marriage itself.

Yes, I am long winded. Two other sets of questions/thoughts and responses followed:

i. I see. Another question: when you say "denying yourself a proper marriage", does that mean the church or any pastor would not bless such unions, even though it is a legal marraige?

i. That would be up to the individual pastor and/or the denominational regulations under which they serve.  I know pastors who are willing to marry people in that situation, and others who are not.  Some have conditions (which they apply to all couples that they will marry) such as a certain number of pre-marital counseling sessions, or that the couple is not living together prior to marriage, and so on.  But there is no hard and fast rule here; by "denying yourself a proper marriage" I only meant that the relationship between those two people would not be what marriage was designed to be by God, not that the marriage would be improper in some legalistic sense of the word. 

ii. Coming from a personal point of view, sometimes I believe that when the right person appears you may get into a relationship without realising there is a conflict in faith until you have to face the point of deciding to move on or walk away. In rare circumstances, people are able to respect each others' faith and not try to force one another to submission. I also think the thing that really matters for me is the hope that the relationship might be a way to help the other person get to know Christ. Having said that, I fully understand the risk one will undertake by depending on God for sufficient grace and wisdom to maintain one's own grounds and faith.

ii. But what defines 'the right person'? Shouldn't a big part of someone being that right person be the faith you share, especially if that faith is meant to literally be the center of your life? I am not trying to sound harsh, so I hope I don't come across that way, but I feel pretty strongly about this, not as a
rule or law, but as an issue that can be very damaging to individuals and relationships.  How can you know they are the right person without learning about their faith?

Also, you mention the rare circumstances in which people respect each others faith and do not force each other into submission.  I do not think that is so rare.  When two people 'fall in love', they are more than willing to respect their differences and not be too pushy and so on.  But none of that is the point.  Respecting each others faiths and differences, when we are talking about the core of your identity, is not what marriage is made to be.  It is made to be about sharing those things, growing together in them, lifting one another up towards Christ, dying for one another, and so on.  

Furthermore, the problems don't usually arise because one person is disrespectful or overbearing
(though that does happen, of course).  The problems arise out of the subtle interplay of contradicting beliefs and priorities which occur daily and despite our best efforts to put those differences aside. Often the more strenuously we attempt to 'live with one another' through the differences what we are really succeeding in doing is lying to ourselves and hiding the real problems. Not to mention the difficulties that can arise after the couple has been together for some time and the 'honeymoon stage' of the relationship wears off. 

I do understand about hoping that the relationship would help the other person get to know Christ.  Of course we want that for all people we care about. However, in terms of developing an intimate relationship, that is usually a poor excuse to justify what we know is a wrong action/decision.  We tell ourselves that is what really matters, but in reality what 'really matters' to us is whatever convinced us that they were 'the right person' in the first place, or the fact that the relationship is fun, fills a need, etc.  

If what was ultimately important was helping the other person to get to know Christ, we would develop our relationship with them according to that goal, and when we are talking about a non-Christian that doesn't really include what we normally associate with dating/courting/engagement/etc.

Like I say, I am not trying to sound too harsh, or be judgmental.  But I have seen lots of people, including too many friends, go this route and get hurt.  Not only that, but thinking it through tells me its not a good idea (which is what I am hoping to share with you).

Our conversation ended with thanks and prayers for one another. I hope this has been helpful to you as well as my friend and myself.  I know I will have missed things, so please speak up.  

God Bless! 


Anonymous said...

Thank you merry much, for posting this! Your answers helped me to give me better understanding in this topic, I had very similar questions!

Andrew said...

Your welcome. Thank you for letting me know.

It is always encouraging to hear I have not blogged in vain :)